Whose stories deserve to be told in picture book biographies? Authors, illustrators, and editors gathered at New York University to discuss this question and others at a Saturday morning symposium called “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” The May 4 event was hosted by Kendra Tyson, who directs NYU's Georgiou Library and Resource Center for Children's Literature, and co-organized with children’s literature scholar and author Leonard S. Marcus. The symposium series was established last year following Marcus’s gift to the Georgiou Library of a collection of picture book biographies.

Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, married founders of Just Us Books, delivered a reflective keynote address. Presenting photographs from their own lives, the Hudsons discussed their individual experiences coming of age in a world that lacked books written by and about black characters. From fairly early on, Wade Hudson became aware of the injustice in the dearth of diverse children’s books for people of color: “People who looked like me must have done great things too,” he remembers thinking as a child. When he did discover books by authors like Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, “at first, I was angry. Why didn’t I know about these authors?” It was through books by black authors that Wade realized something else: “Yes, I could become a writer.”

Cheryl spoke about how looking into her own family ancestry has led her to reflect on the full humanity of individuals whose stories remain untold, including her great-grandfather, Henry Spurlock, whose bible Cheryl still has in her possession. Growing up, “a love of the printed word and visual literacy was passed down to me by my mother and father,” Cheryl said. And yet, Cheryl remained faced with the question: “Is my story or are my parents’ stories worthy of being told in children’s books?” And furthermore, “who decides?” Cheryl recalled that one of the few books that she connected to fully as a child was Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely (1967), which stars a black girl “with a delightful imagination.” The book also represents “the universality of middle grade angst. Everyone should know of Zeely like they know Charlotte’s Web,” Cheryl said.

In creating Just Us Books in 1988, the Hudsons aimed to help fill a void within the publishing industry. “We refused to accept that there was no market [for diverse books],” Wade said. There remains much space on the shelf to be filled with multicultural stories, not only for readers of color, but for all people to “celebrate our common human history,” Wade said.

The Making of a Picture Book Biography

Speaking on a panel about the process of writing and illustrating a picture book biography, were author Laban Carrick Hill, illustrator Bryan Collier, Scholastic art director Patti Ann Harris, and Leonard S. Marcus. The topic of their discussion was the book Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (Little, Brown), written by Hill and illustrated by Collier.

The book is about an enslaved artist in South Carolina, who lived from the 1820s to the 1860s. Throughout his life, Drake created more than 100 stoneware pots on which he would also write poems. Hills shared how he first discovered Drake—during a slide presentation about black history—and said he was struck with a realization: writing on the sides of his pots “was the only way for Drake to publish his poems.” Hills himself was moved to create a poem about Drake, but admitted that “my first poems were terrible.” Eventually, he discovered that he could best tell his story “as a picture book poem.” The verse in the book focuses on Drake’s physical act of creation, with visceral language that captures the transformative experience of art-making.

When Collier learned of the project and was able to take it on, he said he was “startled that I had never heard of David Drake.” For many subjects of picture book biographies, there exists a wealth of archival material—not the case with Drake. So Collier created his own path to learning about the figure who might have been lost to history if not for the words he left behind.

Collier visited the plantation in Edgefield, S.C., where Dave had been enslaved—and where he created his art. “I wanted to experience the ground he walked on, the sky he walked under,” Collier said. While visiting the area, he also had the chance to see five of Drake’s pots, which were in the possession of a master potter in South Carolina. As Collier soaked in the colors of the landscape, both Drake’s and Hills’s words “took on so many more meanings” for Collier. He envisioned “all the horror of strange fruit” that might once have hung from the trees, and he marveled at Drake’s ability to create art under such circumstances. “Dave possessed “an artist’s mind and spirit… [the capacity] to wonder.”

Hills and Collier discussed working together—while not actually working side-by-side. Hills always thought of the story as “a picture book, not a word book.” He relied on Collier to make the story whole and to fill in the spaces that he could not with words. Hills also addressed the fact that “I’m white and was writing without the authority of blackness.” In order to write about his character, Hills “focused on the action and movement” of Drake’s pot-making process. Writing the rhythms of his work, “I wanted to make it Dave’s story and not mine… a story about craft, but also about a man fulfilling his life.” Hills added that the story is also “a celebration of literacy.”

Because seeing where Drake was enslaved provided Collier with a visual patchwork of images, he chose to approach the book using collage—“a piecing of objects together that have nothing to do with one another,” until they are presented collectively. As he was creating the art, he also unconsciously patterned his pieces after the many quilts that his grandmother made when he was a child. The end result of the juxtaposed pieces is a “tapestry of wholeness.”

According to Harris, who served as the art director for the book, she observed the way in which Collier “approaches books like a musician, improvising as he works. It has freed me too,” she said.

More Stories to Tell

The second and final panel furthered the discussion about diversity in picture book biographies. The panelists were Jalissa Corrie, marketing associate at Lee & Low Books; illustrator Raúl Colón; author-illustrator Javaka Steptoe; and Annie Lin, senior children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. The panel was moderated by Natasha Strassfeld, assistant professor of special education at NYU Steinhardt.

The speakers discussed the process of finding the individuals whose stories they want to tell, shaping those stories, and conveying the complexities of individuals’ lives to young audiences.

Steptoe, who grew up in a family of artists, became aware of the nuances of the creative process when he was very young. He learned that, regardless of the work being created, “everything must move the story forward. The story is the most important thing.” That being said, the process of creating a picture book biography about a particular person depends upon the individual. In the case of the subject of Steptoe’s Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown), “Music was a big part of his art… I listened to music as I was writing.” Steptoe also chose to create images that appear “on asphalt, because Basquiat’s story doesn’t happen far, far away… but on a basketball court, on the streets.” He said he was drawn to tell Basquiat’s story because traditionally, “Basquiat has been portrayed badly. I wanted to bring humanity to him.” Steptoe also reflected on writing about such a multilayered individual for children, saying, “He made bad decisions, but that’s not the focus of the story. Regardless of the subject matter, Steptoe advises writers to “always treat whoever you are writing about with humanity.”

For Colón, when it comes to picking a subject, “I have to see pictures already in my head.” He spoke about the illustrator’s role being to “always bring some other element to the story. Don’t just illustrate what the words say.”

In Steptoe’s case, he approaches each project with the idea that he has “the opportunity to tell a story that parallels the text, rather than mimic it.” In a picture book biography, space is clearly limited. Steptoe feels that it’s important to “think about time,” including when the individual lived, how their years unfolded, and what their story arc will be within the brief context of the picture book. “You don’t necessarily tell everything that happened in their life. It’s really simple and really hard at the same time,” he said.

Corrie discussed an upcoming Lee & Low picture book about Maya Angelou called Rise! by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel. She spoke about “addressing difficult subjects like her abuse,” while keeping the book accessible to kids. Colón noted that revered figures like Martin Luther King Jr., “got angry.” He added that great picture book biographies convey the message that “people learn from their mistakes and that’s worth teaching.” Lin added that children should be given credit for grasping human complexities and darkness. However, she believes it’s worth looking closely at individuals’ lives before selecting them as subjects. For example, a frequent biographical subject, Coco Chanel, has “a history as a Nazi sympathizer.” Lin believes that maybe there are other figures more deserving of attention than Chanel.

The speakers concluded with thoughts on moving forward with diversifying the picture book biography genre. Corrie spoke about Lee & Low’s diversity gap studies, noting that, despite “the groundswell movement” for diverse books, publishing remains “80% white.” She recommends that gatekeepers—publishers, bookstore buyers, librarians—ask themselves a few critical questions, which appear on Lee & Low’s “Classroom Library Questionnaire,” a tool for teachers and librarians. Among the questions asked of gatekeepers: are libraries displaying books about black people only during Black History Month? And do the characters in the books being featured “all look the same?”

For Corrie, the goal is to not only see more diversity in picture books, but to show individuals of color as fully “humanized characters.” As Wade earlier suggested, children’s books are uniquely poised to show readers “[that] there is so much more to our humanity.”